Ultimate Fighting challenge: Big-spending mixed-martial-arts guys reconsider the problem of Albany, and Sheldon Silver

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A U.F.C. event. (ufc.com)
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Earlier this week, Lorenzo Fertitta, a Nevada casino scion and the owner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, hosted a lunch at the seafood restaurant Oceana in midtown to discuss the company's repeatedly frustrated efforts to legalize mixed martial arts in New York State.

In an expensive-looking black suit, with salt-and-pepper stubble, a linebacker's build and a faint whiff of expensive aftershave, Fertitta wondered aloud how his billion-dollar company, whose product is legal in 47 states and has the added imprimatur of a major television deal with Fox, is still prohibited from holding fights in one of the country's largest markets.

Around the table, picking shrimp and oysters from a few seafood towers, were a handful of shabbily dressed reporters, and the slightly-better-dressed Albany hands who have been trying to help U.F.C. break a legislative logjam that is now entering its fourth year: longtime lobbyist David Weinraub, pollster and P.R. man Steve Greenberg, and consultant and former Bloomberg campaign manager Bradley Tusk.

Despite the top talent, and a financial comittment to its lobbying effort that now stretches to several hundred thousand dollars, the company has so far been unable to achieve movement in the State Assembly, where Speaker Sheldon Silver has quietly kept a bill to legalize mixed martial arts from coming to a vote, even after it twice passed the State Senate with bipartisan support.

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And, despite his mounting frustration, Fertitta described a surprisingly demure lobbying strategy for a sport that competes in cages and is premised on mauling opponents into submission.

"We don't want to be pains in the ass," Fertitta said, when asked about the prospect of drumming up a full-fledged public campaign to pressure legislators. "We want to be gentlemen about it."

The ungentlemanly nature of mixed martial arts has made U.F.C. one of the faster-growing sports leagues in the world, raking in revenue from a young demographic of devoted fans, whose rabidness sometimes surprises the company's own executives.

In-house U.F.C. publicist Caren Bell, the only female in the room, said she had worked for the Rolling Stones and U2, and that there was really no comparison.

"It's true," said Dana White, the voluble U.F.C. president and public face of the enterprise, who had joined the lunch in progress. "Our fan base is similar. I don't know the Stones' fan base, but U2 will play seven nights in Boston, and the same fuckin' people will go seven nights in a row, you know?"

According to the U.F.C., that enthusiasm could translate into as much as $45 million dollars in economic activity per fight for the local areas that host bouts, and could be particularly meaningful in cities like Buffalo, with its close proximity to Canada, which the organization says has a disproportionate share of U.F.C. devotees.

The company had hoped that Governor Andrew Cuomo's new "open for business" initiative might lead him to include legalization of mixed martial arts in this year's budget bill, but it didn't happen.

As he made his way through a plate of swordfish, Fertitta said he had spoken to the governor—who has received upward of $100,000 in contributions from the company and its affiliates—about his efforts.

"He knew the fighters," said Fertitta. "He seemed to be a fan."

A spokesman for the governor said that Cuomo has not taken a position on the issue.

That would seem to leave the lobbyists on their own to overcome the Assembly, where Silver has never allowed the bill to come to the floor.

Until recently, the primary objection was thought to be to the sport's inherent violence, as expressed by a few loud critics, like the upstate assemblyman Bob Reilly. But the U.F.C. people now talk about a different obstacle, which surfaced last year when a powerful group outside New York went public with its opposition: the Culinary Union in Las Vegas.

As it happens, the union is grappling with the casino company owned by Fertitta's family, and launched an all-out campaign to discredit the company, publishing what it said were homophic slurs from White and some of the sport's biggest fighters. The union also has some powerful allies in New York's labor community, which would seem to be useful leverage for pressuring the company back home.

Asked why U.F.C. didn't respond the union's efforts before last year, Lorenzo said, "Before, they weren't on the record."

Then he returned to the idea that they were nice guys who wanted, above all, to avoid a scrap.

"We didn't want to play poke-you-in-the-eye," he said, referring to one of the few maneuvers that are not allowed in U.F.C. bouts. "We wanted to be gentlemen about it."

Pertitta said it was "really a Las Vegas issue," and that the company wasn't at all anti-union or anti-worker. 

No one at the table could articulate exactly how the U.F.C. might break the logjam in Albany this year, but that didn't prevent Fertitta from dreaming about the first New York bout.

"When we come here, we're going to blow it out," he said, promising that the inaugural event would be a star-studded affair at Madison Square Garden with public weigh-ins, high profile after-parties and lots and lots of media attention.

"This will be an event like when Ali fought Frazier in 1971," he said. "Every celebrity will have to be there."

He mentioned names like Jay-Z and Justin Bieber.

Weinraub, a lobbyist who handles a lot of clients on a vast array of issues, said the only thing people ask him about in casual conversation at the Capitol now is mixed martial arts.

"This is going to happen for all the right reasons," he said. "This is the time. This is it."